History of the Urban Farm

The following narrative has been excerpted from “Considering the Urban Farm Program and the Role of Place-Based Experiential Education in the Pedagogy of Landscape Architecture,” written by Harper Keeler (2011).

History of the Urban Farm, as a program and a place

Edible City Laboratory

The Urban Farm as a garden project began in 1975 mostly as a collection of students growing food on surplus space. This began a tradition that continues to the present although the idea of surplus space is a thing of the past. The program was initiated by Richard Britz, who was a young architect teaching in the department of Landscape Architecture and was a brilliant organizer and outspoken advocate of getting students to understand the importance of growing food. His primary work centered on a concept which he called the Edible City in which he and his students were considering ways of retrofitting existing city blocks into planned communities dedicated to self sufficiency. Decades before the idea of sustainability entered the general lexicon, Britz envisioned residential, city-block scale communities that conserved and/or created energy, minimized waste and utilized shared open space for food production. Using the central inner – or surplus – space available in a typical Eugene city block as a study area, Britz and his students proposed strategic phasing sequences depicting how individual Urban Farms could be created to subsequently transform the way cities were being designed and lived in.

Much of the Edible City concept had to do with energy and material flow systems and the decreasing of what Britz often referred to as ‘import and export coefficients’. The idea was to ‘close the loops’ in terms of energy, waste, water and food. Although most of these concepts would seem familiar now, this was pretty heady stuff at the time and probably had a lot to do with the eventual permission to put some of these theories to test at what Britz was calling, the Urban Farm. At this time, the area of the Urban Farm was very similar in scale to the usable space of a typical Eugene city block. The concept was to use the Urban Farm site to test sustainable systems and consider their feasibility. The majority of the early work being done had to do with growing food and increasing soil fertility. Rabbits and chickens were being raised for nitrogen – and sometimes protein – and a large-scale organic waste worm-composting program functioned as a model of sustainable organic material recycling that converted food waste from restaurants and households and utilized all of this material on-site.

Work at the farm in conjunction with research and design studios gave rise to the publication of the Edible City Resource Manual in 1981. This volume documented the work of architecture and landscape students and eventually spawned the creation of the Edible City Resource Center, a 501(c)3 whose mission was to promote sustainable food systems, responsible design and community-based activism. Thirty years later, this effort has become the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition and is doing much of the same work.

Decline and Reinvention

In the 1980’s, student involvement in the program decreased considerably. Richard, having been denied tenure, had left the department in 1979 and without his energy, the Urban Farm languished. The political and social climate was such that living simply with an authentic regard to local food and a sustainable lifestyle waned in popularity, even in Eugene. This resulted in decreasing interest in gardening and the fate of the Urban Farm hung by a thread. In the winter of 1983, Ann Bettman, who had worked at the Urban Farm and was teaching the plants program and design studios, gave a slide presentation to the department with the intention of determining a future for the farm.

The response was very positive and Bettman took over where Britz left off, however with a considerably more measured style. She was interested in developing the space slowly with perennial plantings of flowers and vegetable beds that would establish the structure of the garden. Under Bettman’s leadership the class began to gain in popularity, which was crucial because in 1986, the Farm came under threat from a development group called the Riverfront Research Park (RRP). The RRP is a collaboration between the University and the City of Eugene that was working towards locating large research buildings in the north campus area. Bettman joined members of the architecture department to oppose this plan, explaining that the Urban Farm was a sacred site and building upon it would violate the university planning directives that are based on Christopher Alexander’s Pattern Language. (This will be discussed in further detail in the ‘Outdoor Classroom’ segment of this chapter). In the face of this opposition, the RRP decided to do site construction in other areas.

Shortly thereafter the Architecture and Allied Arts School (now the College of Design) became interested in replacing the adjacent antiquated furniture design woodshop with a much bigger version that would essentially decrease the Urban Farm area by 50%. Had Bettman not re-established momentum back on the farm, this planned development may very well have been fatal; however, the landscape architecture department was able to negotiate for temporary additional space for the class to function while the new woodshop was being built.

In 1991-92, professor Cynthia Girling, an alumna of the department and who had worked at the Urban Farm and was a contributor to the Edible City Resource Manual, offered a design-build studio that included retaining walls, an entry gate and trellis sequence and additional hard-scaping. Landscape architecture students spent two terms designing and building these improvements and by doing so, reinforced the department’s commitment to the Urban Farm. This work was key in establishing the garden and orchard spaces as being an identified ‘outdoor classroom,’ which is recognized by the university planning office as being a vital pattern of behavior.

With the relative security of a recognized space and sanctioned use pattern, Bettman continued to develop the Urban Farm as a program. New connections with the local agrarian community were cemented and the farm’s role as a community member continued to grow. It was about this time that Britz returned for a cameo appearance and taught a winter Urban Farm class. The energy he brought, combined with a small but dedicated group of students looking to increase their involvement at the Farm, further invigorated the program. Bettman, along with Britz and department head, David Hulse, seized on this energy and developed a strategy where the Urban Farm class would continue to be offered with her at the helm.

The Outdoor Classroom

As student enrolment numbers continued to increase and forward momentum remained constant, options were considered to look for additional space for the program. Towards this end, Urban Farm students were given permission to begin to repair adjacent land to the north and develop an area that is presently known as the “Back 40.” In truth, students had already began the land-grab before gaining permission but no one really seemed to care about a bunch of students cleaning out old construction debris and removing blackberry brambles.

As a strategy to improve the neglected soil of the Back 40, and in good Urban Farm tradition, a number of students began to collect loads of kitchen scraps from local restaurants and began an ambitious in-situ, or ‘sheet composting’, program to build soil fertility. This project coincided with a visit from Uday Bhawalkar at the time was the director of the Bhawalkar Earthworm research institute and an internationally known expert of vermi-bioconversion, or earthworm composting. Bhawalkar was introduced to the project by representatives from the Worm Digest, which was a monthly publication that operated under the umbrella of the Edible City Resource Center. This was significant because twenty years after the first seeds were planted at the farm, growth was continuing with direct links to the original effort still visible. Following Bhalwalkar’s advice, the program of layering large amounts of food waste with donated leaves and rock dust returned the area to productivity and facilitated the planting of the orchard that exists today.

Although the ‘back 40’ has yet to be officially recognized as a part of the Urban Farm classroom, a mixed species orchard with an adjacent fenced planting area and plastic hoop house occupy the site. This area and these elements play a central part of the Farm as it presently functions and efforts to make this area permanent are continuing. Because the university has undergone significant expansion with record numbers of incoming students, options for development are always being considered. At the present time, approximately half of the Urban Farm space is officially considered part of the outdoor classroom with the remainder being ‘build-able space’. It seems unlikely that the university would decide to build in this area, however pressures being as they are, this remains a concern. The Urban Farm class would be seriously impacted should any further designs to reduce its usable area be entertained and student objection to such a plan would most likely be considerable.

The Green and the Grove

In the spring of 2012, Harper Keeler joined forces with the Student Sustainability program and various student organizations to pitch the idea of expanding the Urban Farm into university owned lots in the Fairmount Neighborhood. Working with the resident life office – which oversees this area of campus – and the campus planning office, two potential lots were identified. The Grove is a site on the 1800 block of Moss Street that has been developed into a student community garden, under the auspice of the Urban Farm program and managed by the UO Sustainability Coalition. ‘Permission’ to use this space is guaranteed through 2015, with a plan to assess future involvement as this deadline approaches. The Columbia Green is a double lot on Columbia Street, just to the north of 19th Avenue that is designed to function as a working outdoor classroom as well as an example of open-space planning that buffers the transition form university owed property and the adjacent privately held neighborhood. Campus planning has demonstrated an enthusiastic posture of support for this project by agreeing to a 5 year memorandum of understanding that permits the use and development of this garden space through 2017. Although nothing is certain, there is a general feeling that this will be a permanent garden open space that will more likely expand and continue to be an exciting neighborhood amenity.

Program Vision & Development

Creating an urban farm program in a landscape architecture department

For more than two and a half decades, Bettman steered the development of the program with a dedicated understanding that direct associations can be made between the activities on the ground and the manner in which the ground is considered, both locally and in general terms. As a gardening experience, the class was designed to provide valuable life skills and a new perspective for most students. As a programmatic collection of related elements, it became a learning environment where students from across all disciplines can become advocates for sustainable farming practices as a means of protecting the health of our air, land, and water (Bettman, 2002). An argument should also be made that an ethic to improve social ills such as food insecurity, nutritional illiteracy and community disconnection can also be added to this list.

Space and Perception

In the early days of the Urban Farm program, Bettman was not working in an environment where urban agriculture and food system awareness was in the forefront, as it is today. This was a much more frustrating time in which the Urban Farm required constant defending from forces that lacked the vision that Bettman espoused. The disconnect between a desire to use the ‘open space’ of the farm for possible and eventual construction and the need to preserve the Farm’s Class 1 soil, was absolute. The loss of much this precious resource to an architecture studio demonstrated this disconnect. Despite this atmosphere and through her dogged perseverance, Bettman was able to not only defend the land under use but to also foster an atmosphere where high student interest and a dedicated group of team leaders could create a momentum that continues to the present. Increasing the class to three terms a year was also key during this period. Even though many of the forces that she successfully repelled still exist, the core of the Bettman’s program remains intact.


Due to the absolute uniqueness of the Urban Farm class within a department of landscape architecture, the development of the Urban Farm as a program was and continues to be a work in progress. Over the last thirty or so years, Bettman and her team  laid the foundation on which the farm continues to grow. An account of the frustrations and simultaneous rewards that were associated with her development of the program was published in Laura Sayre’s extensive study of the most important student farms in the country titled,‘Fields of Learning: The Student Farm Movement in North America.”

Class Material

Over the years a collection of the most important information needed in order to be a proficient gardener has been compiled to form the Urban Farm Reader. The reader contains Bettman’s writing on the history and mission of the Farm, basic soil and plant biology, an overview of specific organic philosophies and a breakdown of vegetable plant families. In addition, sections relating to the soil food web, composting, herbal remedies, seed propagation schedules, fruit tree pruning etc. Essays from team leaders and authoritative voices in the field are also included to provide students with what they need to become competent gardeners.

Assigned Class Work (LA 390)

To complement the physical work at the farm, seasonally appropriate assignments are given. Students are required to select from a reading list of pertinent titles relating to agricultural issues and write about what they learn. They also are required to identify appropriate community efforts having to do with sustainable agriculture, where they then work and report on their experience. This assignment is intentionally open-ended so that students can find exciting and important work in the community in which to become involved, be it hunger relief programs, school gardens, farm to school programs, community gardens or residential efforts. Students are also required to develop an individual working definition of ‘Eating Local’ that they then adhere to for two days and report on their experience. This assignment also is subject to alteration due to the season but is generally intended to encourage students to focus on the origins of the food that they eat. As with gardening, student experience levels with buying local can vary significantly. This assignment is generally successful in getting students to compare what they are growing at the farm with what is available and thereby make more informed decisions about the food they buy and consume.


An important aspect of the Urban Farm experience has to do with a class as a group pausing to remember where we are in the cycle of the year. Drawing on her Celtic heritage, Bettman initiated a tradition of getting together on key agricultural holidays and talking about where we have been and where we are heading. Because students mostly attend the Urban Farm class for only a ten-week term, they often lose track of the fact that the growing cycles do not conform with the school cycle. By pausing to reflect on work that was done before the students arrived and the work that they are leaving for the next class, bridges are formed. These events usually happen in the spring and fall and include references to various mythologies that add poignancy to the event. Students have found that taking part in these type of rituals gives them and stronger connection to the work that they are doing and helps them to understand where they are within a long line of agrarian based cultures and traditions.

Urban Farm Land and Function

The Urban Farm is a 1.75 acre ‘L-shaped’ piece of land just to the north of Eugene’s historic millrace and is surrounded by art studios, a woodshop, and ceramics kiln. On the Farm there are approximately 60 fruit bearing trees including cultivars of apple, Asian and European pear, cherry, plum, persimmon, fig and English walnut. Majestic heritage black walnut trees surround the farm to the south and west.

Students grow food in one hundred 4’ x 15’ garden beds that are separated into three areas. A central meeting place defined by a circle of straw bales is reserved for general class meetings and a variety of other separate meeting areas provide for smaller, more intimate, group discussion sessions. Throughout the common areas of the farm are border plantings and groupings of perennial flowers, medicinal and culinary herbs, cane fruit varietals, grapes and seasonal ornamental beds.

The heavily traveled Franklin Boulevard separates the North Campus area from the older, more formal main campus. North campus is a collection of eclectic fine arts studios, a zebra fish research center and an even more eclectic ensemble of facilities maintenance and energy production buildings. Within this collection resides the Urban Farm. To extend the seasons, the farm utilizes a 16’x12’ greenhouse as well as a 24’x 12’ plastic hoop house and the original 10’x12’ greenhouse that presently functions as a potting shed, tool storage unit, library and general clubhouse. Plans to repair or replace this structure are being considered; however, due to the historic role this building played in the formative days of the Urban Farm, a considerable amount of sentimental value is attached to this modest structure.

Cultural Context – Continuing the agrarian vernacular tradition

The North Campus area of the University of Oregon falls within the floodplain of the Willamette River.

Over the millennia, seasonal flooding and subsequent receding of the river created large deposits of rich silty loam soils. This is designated Class-1 agricultural soil and is considered some of the best agricultural soil in the world.

Agrarian activity on this tract of land has happened as long as there have been people in the valley and agriculture in the Willamette Valley continues to be a major component of revenue statewide. Historic aerial photos of this area along the river show extensive fruit and nut tree cultivation, a practice that continued into the nineteen seventies when development began to spread into this area. Remnants of these orchards are still scattered about, including a mature English walnut tree that continues to produce nuts on the Farm.

Evidence of past land use was exemplified by the old farmhouse that stood on the Urban Farm site until it was torn down in 1991, despite calls for its protection. The farmhouse originally sat amidst a commercial cherry tree orchard and had been repurposed as a meeting place and library in the early days of the Urban Farm. Unfortunately, it was considered inappropriate as a campus building and attempts to save and repair the farmhouse were unsuccessful.

Mature cedar trees that were once a hedge buffer between the farmhouse and the adjoining property continue to define the space where the farmhouse stood. This space is now the primary open-air meeting place for the Urban Farm class. Several years after the building was removed, table grape vines that adorned a trellis on the front of the Farmhouse, re-emerged from rootstock that somehow survived the demolition process. These vines presently cover the eastern gateway to the Urban Farm.

Defining the southern border of the Urban Farm is the Eugene’s historic millrace. In 1852, ten years before the founding of the city of Eugene, the millrace was dug to initially power a sawmill and then a gristmill two years later. Although the millrace has long ceased to be a source of power, its intrinsic connection as a historic artifact of the area’s cultural history, one that is directly tied to Eugene’s agriculture legacy, continues to intrigue students interested in studying the agrarian tradition of the past.

The Urban Farm in the context of the Campus Farm Movement

Although the Urban Farm program can trace its roots back to the 1970’s, the popularity of University campus farms has only become mainstream in the last decade. Over the last few years, the movement has grown tremendously. According to the 2011 College Sustainability Report Card, 70% of schools have a community garden or farm on campus, up from 30 % in 2008.

Laura Sayre’s history and assessment of the campus garden movement,“Fields of Learning, The Student Farm Movement in North America,” concludes that at the time of her research there are about a hundred, if not more, higher-education institutions in North America with on-campus farms or gardens of some sort, and more being established each year (Sayre 2011). Sayre’s definitive study grows out of her work in the creation of the Rodale Institute ‘Farming for Credit’ data-base and seeks to determine why the popularity of the campus farm movement has grown to where it has and what has spurred such universal popularity and endorsement.

For the purposes of her study, her team chose to concentrate on student-run or student-initiated projects that had some level of student initiative or possibilities for student leadership with a degree of attention and concern paid to questions of environmental stewardship and sustainability (Sayre 2011). Large agricultural school programs and land-grant universities, although important and discussed were not central to her research.

Drawing from data collected from 85 programs of various sizes and styles, her team selected fourteen specific prototypical campus farms that were separated into the following categories: “Roots,” “Back to the Land,” “Coming of Age,” and “New Directions.” The Urban Farm program is featured in the “Back to the Land” category along with projects from UC Santa Cruz (1967), Hampshire College (1970), Evergreen State College (1969), and UC Davis (1977). These programs are grouped together primarily because of the relative origination time and common reasons for being. Sayre suggests that they were founded in an era of mingled optimism and crisis, idealism and urgency and points out that for some observers, this ‘60s and ‘70s-era phase of garden creation, represents the starting point of the contemporary movement (Sayre 2010).

As one might expect, each farm project is also as diverse as the university or region it is a part of. Depending often on the department or study tract associated with each, the attached curriculum is generally customized to meet specific expectations. However, in a broad sense, campus farms are very much alike in that they commonly address the social, environmental, and health benefits gained by providing access to fresh healthful food and community building opportunities to enhance better personal health, vernacular cultural awareness, and environmental protection. Because of this, it is useful to identify project differences that demon- strate how a particular program functions apart from the general goals that most share.

The Urban Farm as a distinct model

The Urban Farm is distinct from other campus farms not only in that it is housed in a department of landscape architecture but particularly in both the manner in which food is distributed and the number of students in a given term. Of the fourteen case study programs that the Sayre team highlighted, the Urban Farm is the only program that does not market the food grown. Twelve projects sell produce through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription models and most market to either the campus food service system or farmer’s markets. Of the 85 programs that are identified in her database, 39% have CSA programs and only 8% of projects do not market their food.

That the Urban Farm chooses not to sell food speaks to the primary mission of the program. When it was decided that, due to overwhelming popularity, the Urban Farm class would regularly enroll as many students as the space would permit, a conscious decision was reached that speaks to the primary goal of providing a unique educational experience to as many students as possible. Understanding that a considerable portion of this experience – in many ways the most important – is the direct consumption of the food grown, a dedication to rewarding students with fresh food was put in place. This creates a condition where virtually all of the food grown goes directly to the students in the class and marketing is not an issue. The Urban Farm model is distinct from the vast majority of farm projects because it is free to operate without the constraints created by a marketing program. This allows for a teaching environment that does not revolve around growing market ready varieties and removes an urgency that could potentially hinder curricular diversity and experimentation. Exercises such as vegetable canning, fruit tree pruning and grafting, compost demonstration, beekeeping and a plant identification program are but a few of the on-site activities that fit into an already crowded activity list that is unencumbered by market functions. These functions would also affect the physical space if they were a vital component of the program due to the limited space available and a large student population. It is understood that possible revenue generating avenues are being missed, but the benefits of providing students with the fruits of their labor and a diverse experience far outweigh these avenues.

Additionally, as a supportive member of the local agrarian community, the Urban Farm feels that to enter into a competitive market with neighboring growers; without having to pay the overhead of labor, land and water costs, would be unethical. As the farm presently functions surplus food is rare so this is generally not an issue. During occasional periods where high production coincides with no class attendance, excess produce is donated to local hunger relief efforts.

The Urban Farm as a Class

The Urban Farm hosts over 300 students each year, over the course of all four terms. The primary focus of the class is teaching students how to grow their own food. Working in teams, student urban farmers become the stewards of the farm’s vegetable beds, orchards, greenhouses, compost systems and general spaces. For their efforts, they take home the food that they grow. Simultaneously, students are introduced to issues relating to sustainable agriculture, local food systems, community supported agriculture, farm to school programs as well as other agrarian concerns.

The Urban Farm class is made up of students from virtually every area of study at the University.

Although the course is offered as a class within the department of landscape architecture, students from 89 programs have elected to work at the farm and registration is very competitive. Due to the tremendous popularity of the program, upper class students make up 85% of the population each term, as they are the first to be able to register. The course is offered all four terms and the specific activities performed by students change with the seasons. For this reason, many students will take the course multiple times with the intention of increasing their general knowledge of growing cycles. Due to the significant vested interest of having plants in the ground, many remain involved at the Farm by taking advantage of volunteer work times throughout the year where they come to work and leave with produce.

In its current incarnation, the Urban Farm class hosts approximately 75 students during the spring and fall terms. Summer classes generally contain about 50 students and 25 in the winter. Students in each class are split into teams of about a dozen students taught by an instructor or the Urban Farm Director.